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Make Julian Assange irrelevant

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By Dana Milbank
Saturday, December 18, 2010

Julian Assange was insufferable as he left a London courthouse Thursday.

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"During my time in solitary confinement in the bottom of a Victorian prison, I had time to reflect on the conditions of those people around the world also in solitary confinement," he said after posting bail - as if nine days in an English jail fighting extradition to Sweden on sex charges made him a regular Nelson Mandela.

Before Assange motored off to his house arrest at a friend's mansion, one of his lawyers expressed his determination that Assange "will not be going back to that cell once occupied by Oscar Wilde."

Oscar Wilde? Those cheeky Brits. Assange's indiscriminate dump of American government secrets over the last several months - with hardly a care for who might be hurt or what public good was served - can be summarized nicely by a line from Wilde's play "A Woman of No Importance": Nothing succeeds like excess.

I can understand why Obama administration figures want to prosecute Assange for espionage or other crimes. I confess I'd like to throw a cream pie in his face myself.

But prosecuting Assange would give him exactly what he wants: proof that America is hypocritical, that we don't live by the freedoms we preach. Assange would like nothing more than to be a martyr - and President Obama shouldn't give that to him.

The better way to deal with Assange is to make him irrelevant. The only reason WikiLeaks has been a sensation is the absurd secrecy of the Obama administration, in some ways worse than that of George W. Bush. The reflexive classifying has, by creating the perception that the government has much to hide, created a market for WikiLeaks.

In fact, the WikiLeaks disclosures have been generally benign. Vice President Biden said Thursday that he didn't see "any substantive damage" from them. The biggest revelation was that so many supposed government secrets really aren't secrets. (Silvio Berlusconi loves to party - who knew?)

The episode spotlighted Obama's surprisingly poor record on government openness. The administration has already undertaken four prosecutions of government leakers, more than any predecessor, in some cases using the arcane, World War I-era Espionage Act. At the same time, the administration stymied efforts in Congress to pass a "shield law" to protect journalists' confidential sources.

Government-secrecy watchdog Steven Aftergood at the Federation of American Scientists reports that the administration has yet to produce recommendations for the "fundamental transformation" of the security classification system that Obama ordered a year ago. The government in the first six months of this year declassified only 8 million of the 400 million documents it is supposed to release by 2013. Over-classification is so prevalent that even the Pentagon Papers - leaked by Daniel Ellsberg nearly four decades ago - are still classified as Top Secret.

It's little wonder that Ellsberg himself empathizes with WikiLeaks. At a news conference at the National Press Club on Thursday - shortly before going to chain himself to the White House fence in a protest - the 79-year-old Ellsberg said Assange is a hero. Convicting Assange, he said, "would mean that the crown had returned to America . . . and that we're really under a monarchical system of total control of information."

Ellsberg was accompanied by an activist from Assange's Australia, who lectured Americans on free speech. "We thought that America stood firm for the Constitution, for its First Amendment rights," said the activist, Brett Solomon. "If something has changed, then let us know."

That bloke was as insufferable as Assange. But the administration is playing into their hands by trying to keep harmless information secret. On this point, there was bipartisan agreement at a House Judiciary Committee hearing Thursday after Ellsberg's news conference. Chairman John Conyers complained of "rampant over-classification." Rep. Ted Poe (R-Tex.) said he was "very concerned about our own over-classification." Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.) detected "the trademark of totalitarianism."

Thomas Blanton of the National Security Archive at George Washington University said that between 50 percent and 90 percent of classified material shouldn't be; the result is "vast prairies" of phony government secrets that are impossible to protect.

It achieves little to punish Assange for trespassing on the prairie, either by prosecuting him (as Sen. Dianne Feinstein and other Democrats suggest) or hunting him like a terrorist (as Sarah Palin would have it).

Instead, end the obsessive classification that made Assange possible - and deny him the martyrdom he desires. President Obama: Forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.

Didn't Oscar Wilde say that?

danamilbank@washpost.com


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